Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai has pleaded not guilty to fraud charges in connection with the use of Next Digital’s headquarters in Tseung Kwan O.

Lai, along with Wong Wai-keung, the administrative director of Next Digital, appeared in front of Judge Stanley Chan at the District Court on Wednesday. Next Digital was the parent company of now-defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.

Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai. Photo: HKFP.

Lai, who founded Apple Daily, faced two charges of fraud, while Wong faced one. Both pleaded not guilty.

The pair were accused – along with Next Digital’s former chief operating officer Chow Tat-kuen and “other persons” – of concealing that Next Digital’s office in Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate were used for purposes other than those stated in the lease. They were also accused of “falsely representing” that the premises were used for the purposes stated in the lease between January 1, 2016 and May 19, 2020.

Apple Daily
Next Digital and Apple Daily headquarters in Tseung Kwan O. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Additionally, Lai was accused of concealing the fact that the office had been used for a purpose other than that expressed in agreements between the Hong Kong Industrial Estate Corporation – now the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation – and Apple Daily from April 1, 1998, to December 31, 2015.

Earlier in February, Chan ruled that Chow’s case would be separated from proceedings against Lai and Wong. Chow will next appear in court in July.

District Court
District Court. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The 74-year-old Lai, who is currently serving time in jail over other protest-related charges, has been remanded in custody since December 2020. He is also facing charges under the Beijing-imposed national security law, as well as the colonial-era sedition law.

Apple Daily folded last June after several staff members from the tabloid and Next Digital were charged under the sweeping security legislation. The law criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

Opening statements adjourned

Before Lai and Wong made their pleas, Wong’s representative, Senior Counsel Maggie Wong, said that she needed “further better particulars” from the prosecution regarding an amended charge sheet.

According to the senior counsel, the prosecution had amended their opening statement and stated that the “other persons” mentioned in the charge included Lai’s personal assistant Mark Simon and Rosa Ho, a legal consultant for Next Digital.

Stanley Chan
Stanley Chan. Photo: Judiciary.

Wong said she needed more information from the prosecution on the areas of the charges, as well as how communications between Ho, a lawyer, and Wong, a staff member, could be the basis for the charge.

Chan adjourned the court session for 30 minutes to allow the prosecution and the defence to discuss the matter. The prosecution, led by Director of Public Prosecutions Maggie Yang, said that the defence had requested a written record of the information requested by senior counsel Wong. Yang also said there were 69 witnesses in the case, 10 to 15 of whom would be summoned to court.

Senior counsel Wong then said that the prosecution had agreed to provide a written answer to the defence by Friday. The judge ruled that both sides must inform the court by Friday afternoon whether opening statements can be made on May 3, when Lai and Wong will next appear in court.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.